Get To Know: Lotte Ruth Johnson of Blink. Theatre
About a month ago, the Tung team spent an evening getting to know the recent work of Blink. Theatre. Over the course of two hours we were treated to Response 3: Reality, which saw the presentation of three searing pieces of new writing on the titular theme, and Quarry, a funny and moving one-woman play which has grown out of a piece shown at Response 2. Each piece was as sharp and keenly observed as the last.
At the end of the night, after we'd gushed intensely at Blink. Theatre's Artistic Director Benjamin Victor about each piece, he introduced us to the Director of all four, Lotte Johnson. Later on, Lotte and I had a chat about her path to becoming a director, acting coach and teacher, her responsibilities to actors and audiences alike, and the positive moves that Blink. Theatre is making to actively tackle inequity in the industry. Here's what she said...
Hi Lotte! So, tell me how you got into directing.
I very quickly realised while I was doing my degree in drama and creative writing that I didn’t like acting that much and was drawn far more to directing. Because I’m not an actor, I think it’s perhaps easier for me to be completely objective. I work very collaboratively and I don’t go into the room with a ‘vision’ as such — I just try to open up conversations and see what we can come up with as a team. I’m in awe of actors — when I’m coaching directors I think it’s always healthy to remind them that sometimes the actor will know more than they do, and that they don’t have all the answers. It creates quite a healthy dynamic I think.
For sure. And how did you come to work with Blink. Theatre?
In 2014 there was a call out for an assistant director for Blink. Theatre and so I met Ben, one of the founders. I've been associate director ever since.
Ben and I work very very closely together. We’re incredibly different so we compliment each other while also having a great respect for each other’s work. For the last piece of work we made, Response 3: Reality, we had my sister Scarlett on board as a producer for the first time. She’s so experienced, so professional, and because she has a totally different insight into the world of acting she brought something new to the team.
What do you feel are your key responsibilities to your actors?
There are lots of things. I feel like it’s my responsibility to allow actors to access the point at which they can be most creative. It’s also up to me to help them to understand what might suppress that.
And that’s different for everyone, right?
Massively so. All actors need different things and I try to address everyone's creative needs equally. I try to figure out a way to get them out of that ‘I can’t do it’ frame of mind, to create a language for overcoming whatever might be getting in their way.
The other thing I focus on is wellbeing. It’s down to me to ensure that everybody I’m working with is being looked after physically and emotionally throughout the whole process because at the end of the day I’m asking the actors I’m working with to make themselves really vulnerable.
It sounds like you’re taking on the role of quasi-therapist when you’re in that space - is that quite draining for you?
I'm definitely not a therapist and it wouldn't be ethical for me to invite that kind of dependence. But yes, it can be exhausting, but when you open that door and say ‘it’s okay to be sad’, ‘it’s okay not to be on form today because you’ve had a terrible day at work’, ‘it’s okay for us to have a shit rehearsal sometimes, let’s get back on it tomorrow’— having that forgiveness sometimes actually makes my job easier. It creates trust and equality between me and the actor.
Are you able to take your own advice on that when you’re in those sessions, or do you put a lot of pressure on yourself to be strong for your actors?
It totally depends on what our relationship is. I would never come into a rehearsal space and offload my own angst on the people I’m working with, but for example in working with Tiannah recently on Quarry, we both felt like we were mutually on this journey with a piece we felt very close to and that was amazing but also quite draining. So in that instance we would come into rehearsals and debrief each other as friends and as colleagues. We both found that really comforting and it helped us with the work. With some actors I hold back more, and find my own well-being outside of the room.
What do you feel your responsibilities are to your audience?
I believe that your responsibility as an artist is to acknowledge that you’re representing the past, present and future all the time. Whatever the message, the situation, the theme we’re using in our work, I think about that very carefully before we go on stage. All art is political, all art conjures thoughts and emotions that can lead into action. I have a responsibility to make sure that those actions are forward thinking, progressive and promoting equality.
That came across quite strongly when I was watching Response 3 earlier this week. It’s clear you put a lot of though into the kind of work, the kinds of voices, actors, and writers that you platform.
To be honest we do put a lot of thought into it. It really doesn’t take that much more time to find people from a variety of backgrounds and situations and give them a platform. We think about representation, both in terms of raising the profiles of artists that aren’t having their voices heard loudly enough, and in terms of casting - it’s important that whenever we put on a play we take care not to reinforce negative stereotypes. There are questions you have to ask of yourself: is the story useful? Is it going to push the conversation forward? Will it make people think differently?
How do you put the call out to find your writers and actors?
We do everything on Twitter - all of our casting and our writing submissions. Everyone who submits work has to be emerging and underrepresented, not one or the other. And then we look for the best writing — or rather, not the best writing, but the best ideas. Lots of the people who send us scripts are people who haven’t gone to drama school, so they might not have formatted it perfectly, or maybe there are spelling mistakes; that doesn’t matter to us.
Would you say that you’re pro the use of quotas in theatre?
Luckily we don't need quotas because we are a platform for emerging and underrepresented people, so by definition we are already operating with equality in mind, that’s why Response exists. It's very sad to me that quotas are necessary elsewhere. We spend hours and hours sifting through our submissions and talking with potential collaborators, and we choose the ideas that excite us the most. We had twelve people involved in this last project and nine were women - that was totally intentional. I know a lot of men who got assistant director jobs, for example, very very easily. I only know one or two women for whom the situation was the same. We’re swinging the pendulum in the opposite way very very purposefully.
We’re behind that 100%. What have you seen recently that really blew you away?
I saw Black Men Walking at the Royal Court. It was an incredible experience - I basically hated it for the first half an hour. It appeared at first to perpetuate racial stereotypes but the amazing thing about the piece is that I’d completely changed my opinion about it by the end. I realised that they’d done that on purpose to force the audience to think about the way they were perceiving the characters. It was incredibly effective.
Finally, what’s next for Blink Theatre?
We’ll be starting work on Response 4 very soon. We’re going to be holding workshops for writers, actors and directors to try to level the playing field. Lots of people who apply aren’t trained and aren’t yet comfortable putting their ideas down on paper. We hope that this way the competition will be more equal.